Etta Baker was a master of the blues guitar style that became popular in the southern piedmont after the turn of the century. She was raised in the foothills of Caldwell County where music was central in the lives of her family and friends. Both parents played several instruments, and Etta began picking the guitar at the age of three. "I was so small, I had to lay the guitar on the bed, stand on the floor and play on the neck," she recalled. Her seven brothers and sisters already played some instruments and soon she was making music alongside them at community entertainments and corn shuckings.
Mrs. Baker played the guitar and banjo. She rarely sang, preferring to let the instrument speak for her. Like most traditional artists, she played music for personal satisfaction and for the pleasure of friends and family. However, in 1956, her music was recorded on the influential album Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians. She was also featured on a 1972 recording Music From the Hills of Caldwell County. Her popular CD, One Dime Blues, came out in 1991 to great reviews.
In her last 30 years, Mrs. Baker carried her music far beyond the borders of Caldwell County. She performed at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Park in Virginia, the 1984 World's Fair in Knoxville, the Kent State Folk Festival, and the Augusta Heritage Festival. In 1982 she and her sister Cora Phillips were honored jointly with the North Carolina Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award. She received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1991.
Etta Baker and her husband Lee raised nine children, many of whom carry on the family musical tradition. She also worked for more than 20 years at the Skyland Textile Company before retiring in order to pursue her performing career. Mrs. Baker passed away in October, 2006 at the age of 93, having achieved international recognition for her artistry and for North Carolina's finger-picked blues tradition.
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